Editor’s Note: The following article was published in the March 22, 2019, edition of The Webster Times, on page 3.
By GUS STEEVES
DUDLEY — Today, almost nobody would say women aren’t qualified to be nurses. But when Clara Barton lived in the 19th century, they were routinely rejected from caring from anyone out- side the family.
That was particularly true regarding Civil War soldiers, since “a proper 19th century lady was not supposed to follow the soldiers onto the battlefield,” nor were they supposed to have “intimate knowledge” of strange men’s bodies, and they would supposedly faint at the sight of blood.
“Apparently, what these men for- got is that women give birth,” Nichols Professor Emily Thomas said.
Barton changed many of those attitudes, Thomas added, stating “She was one of the brave ones who went to them. … She proved that she could be a true soldier… and that other women could, too.”
Thomas, who also runs Oxford’s Clara Barton Birthplace Museum, said the vast majority of nurses in that era stayed behind the lines – in places like Washington, D.C., that many of the wounded never reached for lack of basic care. The Civil War (1861-5) killed about 750,000 Americans, about two-thirds of them from various diseases and infections.
“Even a simple cut could lead to septicemia [blood poisoning] that could kill you,” Thomas said. “Had we fought this just 10 years later, we’d have had some knowledge of the germ theory of disease,” which was then just starting to be realized in Europe.
Instead, most American doctors believed in the “miasma theory,” which claims that noxious smells caused disease. Ironically, had they done the things necessary to eliminate such smells – particularly cleaning places, bandages, etc. – they’d have also reduced the germs.
“Women naturally knew how to nurse,” Thomas said. “They took care of children and understood cleanliness. … Sadly, most doctors didn’t understand this” and would criticize the nurses when they came in and complained “This place smells horrible and is disgusting. We need to clean this up.”
Barton got her start, like most nurses of that era, at home in Oxford. Youngest of five children of a “fairly prosperous” horse dealer, she got her first taste of 19th century medicine when her brother David fell from a second-story rafter when she was age 11. Although he landed on his feet, he had awful headaches and was bedridden for the next two years, subject to periodic bloodletting with leeches and treatments that probably included opium and mercury. None of that worked, so the family found a doctor in Millbury who rejected such treatments and encouraged exercise, among other things. David recovered and lived into his 80s.
“Everybody learned by watching their mother, grandmother, aunt,” Thomas said, adding there was no formal nursing training them.
In fact, Barton’s formal education was as a teacher, but when a man was appointed principal of a school she founded, she took a job in the Washington patent office. The office became a Civil War hospital, and Barton started meeting the wounded and hearing “the horror stories of men dying on the field would could have been saved if someone had been there.” It didn’t help that many soldiers were already malnourished, untrained and some had physical defects, Thomas added.
Eventually, that pushed Barton to head for the field, both to treat soldiers and bring them supplies. In practice, she basically followed her brother across the South, since she’d managed to get him appointed quartermaster without the family’s knowledge, Thomas said. She often saw “men with horrific wounds and no bandages to cover them.”
At Antietam, Barton arrived to find battlefield doctors had run out of bandages and were using corn leaves. Dr. James Dunn there gave her the title she’d bear forever after, writing that she was “the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield.” One of that battle’s victims was Dudley’s Frank Corbin, whose funeral “was especially gruesome,” Thomas said. Because he’d been in heat so long coming home for burial, they “left the body outside on the lawn because the smell was so bad.”
Another local who survived was Cpl. Thomas Plunkett. He had “both of his arms blown off” by a shell that killed three men around him, but managed to still hold the flag upright. Barton cared for him, and “after the war, she lobbied so he could get an increased pension” since he had no arms. He did eventually get a job as a secretary at the State House and received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
After the war, Barton ran a missing persons office out of her Washington apartment. “She literally would get hundreds of these letters a week,” and published lists around D.C. where returning soldiers could help her identify people. Of the 54,000 requests she received, she was able to find about 23,000, most of them dead. One, however, was not; he’d gone AWOL and taken off to California. When he found his name on a list, he criticized her for it, but got a barbed response for his desertion.
“She was technically the first woman to run a government office, except they didn’t give her an office or give her pay,” Thomas said.
Thomas also gave quick profiles of other nurses of that era: Harriet Tubman, Dorothea Dix and Dr. Mary Walker. The latter was actually the first female surgeon and served at the Patent Office hospital while Barton was there. She later went to the battlefield, too, and is still the only woman to earn a Congressional Medal of Honor.
For more information on the museum, visit www.clarabartonbirthplace.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 508-987-2056, ext. 2013.